Social Action Discourse

On this page members of the Social Action Team and others will contribute their thoughts on social action issues from time to time.

Caring for Asylum Seekers: My Volunteer Experience in El Paso

By Kathie Bergman
May 7, 2019

The “call to action” came in an email. For months we had been hearing on the evening news that caravans of people from Central America were traveling through Mexico to reach the border of Texas to seek asylum in the USA.

These people were different from those “merely” hoping to sneak into the country to work and send money back to their families. These people were recently fleeing their homes in Honduras and Guatemala where violent gangs held as much power as their corrupt government officials. “No money, no work, no hope” is their mantra.

But it costs money to travel north, and we’re hearing that some migrants put up thousands of dollars, signed away their houses, or made promises of future payments to the “coyotes” who arrange for passage through Mexico. The trip is dangerous – outlaws demand a fee to travel through the parcels of land they control. Corrupt government officials also demand fees to ignore the human cargo passing through the country.

Finally, the migrants reach the border, and when they get through it, they immediately turn themselves in to US officials and request asylum. It is at this point that people are detained in facilities that are make-shift and grossly overcrowded. For a period of time families were being separated – a failed deterrent that was strategized by the U.S. government and backfired when it was reported extensively by the media.

The subsequent process is not clear to me, but apparently migrants can be turned back at this point. If they are not, they receive “papers” and an ankle-bracelet for insurance that they will not disappear once released into the US. After days or weeks in confinement, they are brought into the nearest city and “dumped” for the locals to manage.

It was a local Catholic charity that responded to this human crisis in El Paso and that made contact with multiple religious organizations requesting assistance.

The email in my inbox came from the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ). I applied via the UUCSJ and was instructed to choose my two weeks minimum for the volunteer service. I chose Feb. 17, 2019 to begin my work.

I flew to El Paso via Dallas/Ft. Worth. I took the first Uber ride of my life to the first AirBnB that I’ve ever rented. I stayed with a couple in their home and came to know and care for them during my two weeks stay.

One day, my hostess and I drove by the border wall, which is actually a concrete and/or metal structure maybe 10-12 feet high paralleled by 2 additional fences of chain link topped by razor wire. Every so often there seemed to be a gap in the wall that was patrolled by uniformed and gun-bearing soldiers. Anyone caught between the fences would certainly be apprehended.

Every day I left my lodging around 10 a.m., started my shift at 11 a.m., and ended my work between 5 and 8 p.m. The work was located in a hotel with rooms on the first floor being used as the office, the clothing room, and the food and storage room. Intake was conducted in the hallway. The first person I met and who trained me was Sy Baker, a young 24ish UU woman from Boulder, Colorado. She and I were the only UUs on site that day, and in my two weeks no other UUs appeared, although I know from earlier emails that other UUs had been scheduled in the weeks before my arrival.

Sy gave me a quick and dirty orientation to the volunteer work. Because it was morning and the new arrivals were not expected for a few hours, the immediate task was finding drivers to take our “guests” to the airport or the bus station. Sy asked me to start making phone calls to the volunteers on the list of about 60 identified drivers.

In the time I was there, I worked to help the guests find appropriate clothing that had been donated to us; I gave over-the-counter medications to those complaining of headaches and sore throats; I made sandwiches and packed lunches for the travelers; I served meals; and I escorted guests to their accommodations in the motel. By the end of each day, I was exhausted and happy to have my clean and quiet room at the AirBnB.

In the two weeks I was there, we received between 60 and 100 persons each day including children. Most could speak no English, and nearly all were single adults accompanied by children. They carried little to nothing with them. They were all desperate for shampoo, soaps to clean themselves and chapsticks to sooth their sunburned lips.

I have been asked multiple times since my return if I would do this again. Even my family asked me if I still agree with allowing the migrants to enter this country now that I’ve witnessed the numbers of people who are coming. I must confess that I have conflicting feelings, and things are no more clear to me as I look back on my experience. It’s a very complicated situation.

Can there be a happy solution? What can we control? The people coming to the US are poor, unskilled and in desperate conditions. For the most part they are young and strong and eager to work. Would I walk many miles to give my children a future? Would I leave my home and my family to take a chance for something better? How does one weigh the risks against the rewards? I’m not sure I can answer any of these questions.

What I do know is, I felt called and I took an action. I believe that this is exactly what Unitarian Universalism has taught me. And I believe the work aligns with UU principles. I have been changed by the experience, and now my heart is more open.

Honduras: A Call for Justice

By Caya Tanski
March 14, 2019

I am deeply concerned about the human rights violations and police and military occupation occurring in communities throughout Honduras. In early December 2018, I traveled to Honduras with a delegation of clergy members, human rights professionals, educators and organizers, with the institutional support of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, UU College of Social Justice, SHARE-EL Salvador, and Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

We heard first-hand reports and saw photo evidence that human rights are being continually violated in Honduras. We visited with individuals and families who told of torture, death threats, rape, with the perpetrators protected by immunity. We visited communities being torn apart by police and military occupation. 

We learned how members of the community of Guapinól have been assassinated, threatened with assassination, beaten, and unjustly imprisoned and tortured, simply for trying to defend their water supply (the Guapinól River) from the destruction and poisoning caused by the nearby mining project of Inversiones Los Pinares. This mining project is polluting the people’s only source of drinkable water. As if all of the above human rights violations were not enough, we also learned that young girls in this community are being raped and impregnated by members of the military, presumably as a way to intimidate the people and keep them from speaking up.

Our delegation saw clear and convincing evidence that there are political prisoners in Honduras, that there is rampant impunity for femicide and the murder of human rights defenders, and that migration and the recent exodus are rooted in systemic violence and loss of livelihoods. Due to these human rights violations, Honduras does not merit U.S. State Department accreditation, which is currently upheld, and is a prerequisite for military assistance.

The systemic attack on human rights defenders includes false criminal charges, which the delegation witnessed first-hand at the hearing for Jeremías Martínez, one of at least 18 Guapinól community leaders facing outstanding warrants for trying to defend their land and water. 

As people of faith and conscience, let us call for:

  • An end to police and military occupation of communities all over Honduras, including the Bajo Aguán, and the community of Guipinól.
  • An end to U.S. military aid and arms sales to Honduras, which have regularly been used by the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez against the country’s own people.
  • The re-introduction and passage of the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act in the U.S. Congress to suspend United States security assistance to Honduras.

We must support people and social movements that are working to improve conditions that allow for a dignified life and justice for the people of Honduras, rather than train and fund the military and fund a corrupt Honduras government that is working to destroy the livelihoods of the population.

On March 18, 2019 I will once again travel to Honduras with a U.S. delegation of over 75 faith leaders to support the delegation with translation and logistics. Our objective with these trips is to help U.S. citizens understand the root causes of migration out of Honduras, be in solidarity with activists fighting to defend their lands and water, and to continue to communicate with you all and others in the U.S. who will listen and act on these concerns.  If you would be interested in traveling to Honduras on one of our next trips please send me an email.

Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

By Wiley Miller
Introduction to Faith-to-Action Offering – Nov. 4, 2018

Let us start with a few fundamentals.  What do we value?  As Unitarian Universalists, we value several primary undergirding concepts and among those exists the idea that we respect and esteem “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  From our own congregational statements of mission and vision, we have concluded that we seek to work together to help “heal” the world – not to break it further.  Moreover, we seek to engage in compassionate action in response to injustices – not bitter, angry, and often impulsive retribution resulting in even more injustice, pain, and suffering.  For me, and I hope for each of us, these values mean that we place a very high premium on conscious, independent, self-sustaining human life and that we do all that we can to honor, support, defend, and preserve such life.  The taking of a human life – indeed the intentional taking of a life – is undoubtedly one of the worse acts that can take place on this earth, and we owe it to ourselves, to all whom we love, and to the entire world to do everything reasonably within our power to keep that outcome from ever taking place.  However, these values also mean that we never further compound that atrocity by taking the life of one who has taken one or more lives of others.  That is one of the great heights of hypocrisy.

At Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP), we firmly believe that the death penalty, and the carrying out of the death penalty, are morally wrong and are psychosocially and economically destructive.  There is nothing good about death penalty laws or the acts resulting from those laws.  Therefore, at MADP, we work hard each day in opposition to the death penalty in the state of Missouri.  Obviously, our goal is to repeal the death penalty laws within this state.  However, given the nature and beliefs of those who currently make up and control much of our state government, repeal remains a heavy lift and achieving it is going to take some time.  Meanwhile, we have learned that there is much we can do to reduce the terribly destructive effects of the death penalty even without accomplishing repeal.  Therefore, we are continually working towards the realization of those more minor objectives that allow us to diminish the death penalty.

Time will not allow me to give you a complete summary of our work, but I do wish to share with you two examples of that work.  The first example is that we attempt to reason with prosecuting attorneys across the state preemptively.  We try to get them to see the significant disadvantages of pursuing death penalties in cases that they might have to prosecute.  It appears that many prosecuting attorneys listen to us and give consideration to our message because we have seen a definite decline in the number of cases in which the death penalty is sought.  However, in the case of the St. Louis County prosecutor, he wanted nothing to do with our thoughts or views on the death penalty.  As the prosecutor responsible for placing more people on death row than any other single prosecutor in our state, he fully planned to continue his drive to seek the death penalty in as many instances as possible.  MADP dealt with that prosecutor by joining with several other progressive organizations that together successfully worked to politically defeat that prosecutor in the primary election held in August of this year.  The newly elected prosecutor will be far less likely to pursue the death penalty.

The second example is that we are working to eliminate the practice of what is known as “Judicial Overrides.”  A few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that in capital cases a death sentence has to be imposed by a jury – not simply a judge.  Also, in most states, jury decisions have to be unanimous.  If a jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, we have a hung jury. The legal process ends, and the prosecutor must decide whether to retry the case with an entirely new jury.  However, in Missouri, when there is a hung jury on a death penalty sentence, the judge can step in (the Override) and impose a sentence from the bench. Last year, this “Override” in capital cases occurred twice in Missouri, and a judge imposed a death sentence in each case even though the juries had not been able to agree on a death sentence.  In one case, the 12 person jury voted 11-to-1 for a “life without parole” sentence rather than the death penalty.  Nevertheless, the judge imposed death.  At MADP, we believe that such judicial impositions are arbitrary and capricious, and we want to see them stopped.  Thus, when the next state legislature opens its session in January 2019, a bill designed to end this practice of Judicial Overrides will be introduced.  Getting the bill passed will be difficult, but we will be giving it our best effort.

Again, these are only two examples of the work we are doing and the results we are achieving.  MADP wants you to know that we are so deeply appreciative of your moral and financial support of our work. We promise that with your help, we will continue our persistent efforts to achieve the goals representative of the deep values that we share.